Edwardian, Turn of the Century and The Great War

I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the years 1890-1920 for the past week or two, via fiction, nonfiction, a couple of British period TV series, and my history class. It’s a fascinating time period. I’ll tell you what I’ve been watching and reading, and then I’ll try to share some of what it all made me ponder and put together in my mind.

Fiction:
She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell. I’m not sure exactly when this novel is set, about 1890 or the turn of the century. I read this one because it won the INSPY award for historical fiction this last year. It’s about New York City debutante, Clara Carter, who becomes the leading belle of the season with a little help from her overbearing aunt and her rich, social climber father. Unfortunately, Clara wasn’t really the “spunky, defiant heroine” that we all love and tend to expect in these sorts of historical romances. She’s a seventeen year old girl who’s been indoctrinated to believe that her only worth lies in her ability to attract a rich husband and restore her family’s honor. As Clara makes her way through the balls, dinner parties, and social visits of her coming out season, she changes very little and allows cultural expectations to mold her and pressure her to become what she actually hates. Only a family tragedy forces her to come to her senses and begin to make decisions that will give her a chance to live a real, authentic life. (The Kindle edition of this one is showing as free right now. Definitely worth your time if you like historical romance.)
After the Dancing Days by Margaret Rostkowski. We read this YA novel for my English/History class at homeschool co-op. Annie is a thirteen year old girl living in a small town in Kansas at the end of World War I. As she begins to visit the returning soldiers at the veterans’ hospital where her father works as a doctor, Annie is at first repulsed and frightened by the severely injured men. However, she comes to be friends with them, one in particular, even though her mother is opposed to Annie’s hospital visits and wants her to forget about the war and its consequences.

Nonfiction:
Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt. Semicolon review here. In this true story of a mother and daughter in 1896 who accepted a wager that saw them walk across the entire continent of North America, I found a couple of women who not afraid to strike out and do something unexpected and unacceptable to many of those in their community. Unfortunately for the two women, the book also tells how they paid a steep price in betrayal and social ostracism for their daring.
The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson. This book of social history covers the years 1918-1920 and tells lots of little stories, vignettes really, about people in Britain both great and small and their experiences in the aftermath of World War I. The book featured lots of fascinating people that I wish I had time to find out more about:
plastic surgeon Harold GIllies who repaired and reconstructed the faces of thousands of wounded WW I soldiers,
Joseph Enniver, inventor of Pelmanism, a secular program for strengthening of the mind and character,
nurse Edith Cavell, who helped two hundred allied soldiers escape to freedom in Belgium during the war before she was captured and executed by the Germans,
Coco Chanel, the greatest couturier of all time,
Nancy Astor, the American lady who became England’s first woman Member of Parliament, and many more. Look for a post of quotable stories from this book in the near future.

Television:
Lark Rise to Candleford. This series from the BBC is set in rural England just before the turn of the century, c.1895. The story is taken from a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels by author Flora Thimpson. In the novels Ms. Thompson tells about her experience as a young girl getting a job in a post office and seeing the changes that were coming to England as a result of industrialization and the new modes of transportation and communication that were coming into use during the time period. Laura Timmins, the character through whose eyes we see the stories of village life and cultural transformation, is a village girl and as such, much more adaptable than some of the upper class young women in these stories. She’s able to become independent and see the world as one in which she can rise above her circumstances and become an intelligent voice while retaining her femininity and her place in the community.

Downton Abbey. While I was waiting for the DVD’s of the several episodes of Lark RIse to Candleford to get here in the mail, I began watching Downton Abbey, another period piece set in the years just before WW I, from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the announcement that England was at war with Germany (1914). Downton Abbey is amazing in its deft characterization of both the upper classes and the their servants, and even the burgeoning middle class gets a nod in the appearance of Lord Grantham’s new heir, Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin who becomes the new heir after the death of a couple of closer relatives in the Titanic tragedy. Lord Grantham has only daughters, three of them, who are of marriageable age, but with very little inheritance to hook a husband since almost all the money in the family is tied up in the estate. The servants in this grand old English family are all intimately involved in family matters as well as in the working out of their own lives and relationships. Downton Abbey is something of a soap opera, but it just manages to transcend that genre because the problems and the issues that make up the plot are very real and identifiable and intriguing, leading to both reflection and a feeling of connection. The characters are appealing, sometimes frustrating, and the dialog is spot on and funny. I loved this series, and I was only sorry to see it end.

I’ll have to leave the pondering and putting together for another post. However, I would recommend any or all of the above for your viewing or reading pleasure.

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